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Walking in the footsteps of Archbishop Romero

David Rodriguez

Photo: James Dryburgh


It’s dark now, as I begin chatting to David outside his home in Los Marranitos, a rural village in the Department of La Paz, El Salvador. The weekly community meeting held outside David’s house, which involves community-elected leaders from 14 villages in the area, has just finished. He has had a long day, but then he generally does. Parkinson’s Disease shakes his body as he sits down.

We have a couple of hours before David gets into a battered old Nissan and heads to San Salvador for tomorrow’s parliament. Our discussions are sporadically punctuated by mangos falling from the ancient tree which during the day provides welcome shade. The house is modest. It is adorned by a portrait of David with the FMLN flag and a large poster of El Salvador’s best known face, that of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In March this year President Obama became the first US president to visit Romero’s tomb, which lies below the cathedral in San Salvador. David believes Romero was a prophet, and that in him, Jesus Christ crossed El Salvador. In the late seventies, whilst he was Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero stood against the brutal, US-backed repression of El Salvador’s poor majority. In 1980, after the order from senior government officials, he was assassinated by a death squad whilst giving Mass. The day before his death, he had these words for his country’s government and armed forces:

‘In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to Heaven more urgently with each day that passes, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you to stop the repression.’

His death marked the transition from social unrest and repression to the civil war that would last for the next 12 years and claim around 80,000 lives. Romero’s death and the massacre of mourners at his funeral had a profound effect on David, who was a priest at the time. ‘Romero was four things,’ David explains. ‘A Christian, a humanist, a Salvadoran, and a revolutionary.’ The same could be said of David Rodriguez.

The priest

David grew up in the village of Caldera, in El Salvador’s volcanic zone. His parents owned a sugar cane plantation and a mill for processing the sugar. He recalls a happy atmosphere where the workers were treated as part of the family and everyone ate their meals together. David’s father was very religious and a respected community leader. There was only a primary school in the village, so David’s father arranged for David to live in the church in town, to attend high school in the morning and church teachings in the afternoon.

David later went to Madrid to study an extremely conservative teaching of canonical law. ‘I was of the right, formed of the old school. I was one of the last of the Council of Trent.’ David tells me. ‘We used to give mass in Latin with our backs to the people.’ David became a priest and was soon posted to Tecoluca Church, in San Vicente, a region of coffee and cotton plantations. This immersion in the rural realities of his country began to trouble him. He saw first-hand the ‘hunger wages’ and the abuse of peasant workers. He saw communities denied access to their rivers and land, and, when the élite offered money to his church in return for turning a blind eye, he saw how power buys silence.

This immersion in the rural realities of his country began to trouble him. He saw first-hand the ‘hunger wages’ and the abuse of peasant workers

‘I began seeing the problems without connecting the causes,’ David confesses. ‘But then I saw the aerial fumigation of the cotton fields. It killed the fish in the rivers, the domestic animals, polluted the wells and made people very sick. This was the reality.’ For David, it was this experience that created ‘an internal crisis’ between his religious conservative teaching and the realities flooding his eyes and ears.

In 1969, with this conflict in his mind, David went to a seminar with priests from all over Latin America to analyse the Vatican and discuss the theology of liberation. Suddenly he realized his crisis was the crisis of many. The priests discussed the causes and ‘began to discover reality’.

March on the 30th anniversary of Oscar Romero's death.

Photo: James Dryburgh

A movement began with priests meeting each month for discussions and beginning to do ‘real community work’. Traditional Mass continued, but for those who wanted to stay behind afterwards, there was a deeper analysis of the teachings of the church, known as ‘Bible Circles’.

Some priests, including David, began to denounce injustice, but soon the horror intensified. A massacre of peasants took place near Tecoluca. As David tells me that priests had to become revolutionaries, I wonder how this could be reconciled with the teachings of the Church. As if reading my thoughts, David explains, ‘I began to have a new vision of the Bible. The Bible has a lot of revolutionary chapters. I began to think that the more Christian you are, the more revolutionary you are, and vice versa.’ A few years after this realization, Romero was killed and David joined the guerrillas. ‘We priests were like sheep without a shepherd,’ he reflects.

The revolutionary

A very emotional meeting of the country’s priests took place after Romero’s funeral and caused them to split into three groups. One group, which included David’s brother, decided to leave the country. The second group decided to stay in El Salvador, but to ignore reality and simply teach from the Bible as they always had, and the third group decided to stay and support the struggle of the guerrillas.

‘I began to have a new vision of the Bible. The Bible has a lot of revolutionary chapters. I began to think that the more Christian you are, the more revolutionary you are, and vice versa’

Initially, David was providing Mass for guerrillas, marrying people and helping to hide them, but as the war grew, passivity was no longer an option. In 1981, David was named boss of a militia that had the task of trying to take a strategic barracks near the national treasury buildings in the capital, San Salvador. This was the first of many major roles for David during the 12-year war.

After the peace accords of 1992, David felt lost coming down from the mountain camps. He had no family left in the country and had lost many friends. He went to see the new archbishop, hoping to rejoin the church. He was told that if he left the country for three years, did not speak of events in El Salvador and gave a public apology and statement of regret for what he had done, he could become an unofficial helper at a church, but never again a priest. ‘But what I did, I did with consciousness and thought, and I do not regret it,’ declares David.

The politician

As part of the peace process people were offered land and grants. With the support of his friend Jose Luis, who is still his neighbour in Los Marranitos, David took a small grant to rear cows. In 1997, David ran as a parliamentary candidate for the FMLN in the La Paz region. He was elected and still holds this post today.

The Archbishop saw David entering politics as dangerous for the Church and sent an excommunication request to Rome. The request complained that David, ‘adapted the Bible to fit reality’.

Though David is technically forbidden to enter a church or celebrate Mass, he would like the Catholic Church to recognize his marriage and let him use his vocation for communicating with people again. He believes the Church has double standards, and remarks, ‘the old apostles were married and free to express themselves’.

His religious beliefs inform his political views: he argues that Christian principles are socialist in nature. ‘Sometimes the concept we have is of the Soviet Union, but these are models, and I disagree with these models. The State should not own and control everything, people have to own things.’

‘Our country is like a sick body; when it has worms in the stomach, the food is not getting to all parts of the body’

David compares humanity to the human body. If a body is healthy it distributes food to every part: even the toe nails get some nutrients, not just the heart and brain. ‘Our country is like a sick body; when it has worms in the stomach, the food is not getting to all parts of the body.’ He calls this ‘radical capitalism’ and claims that a country has to produce laws to control the distribution of wealth.

David explains his four political priorities for a healthy body. ‘We need to make State institutions work for poor people, combat corruption by organizing people to tackle it together, make complying with our constitution part of our culture and, finally, reactivate our agriculture.’

David is acutely aware of the problems facing his country, and of their complexity. Unlike many politicians, he does not lead a life sheltered from everyday people and everyday struggle.

It’s now 9.30pm and we’ve survived the falling mangos. David hugs me before getting into his car and starting the long drive back to San Salvador. He’ll drive through his beloved country that so often looks as though the war ended only yesterday.

‘If I am killed, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people,’ said Romero, just days before he was murdered. Like Romero, David has devoted and risked his life to help El Salvador’s poor, defending the message of equality and hope. The journey has lost David his pulpit, but not his passion.

James Dryburgh is a Scottish-born Tasmanian writer passionate about truth and helping the world’s muffled voices to be heard. He has lived in Scotland, Spain and Latin America and is Associate Editor of tasmaniantimes.com

‘The mountain that eats men alive’

Potosí, once one of the largest and richest cities in the world, has an incredible history. It is estimated that as many as eight million Andean Indians died because of the mining of its Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). The workers were brought from all over the region – in today’s Bolivia and Peru – to serve the Spanish Crown. Even now, two miners die each week of silicosis in Potosí, in addition to deaths from other mining-related illnesses and accidents. The ‘mountain that eats men alive’ has been written of many times, though perhaps not often enough read. While the vast majority of miners are men, it is not only men who live in the shadow of Cerro Rico.

The good mother

The mountain itself is female. In indigenous Andean culture mountains represent Pachamama (Mother Earth). The Spanish conquerors understood her importance and she became synonymous with the Virgin Mary, helping to convert the indigenous to Catholicism. This association is particularly evident in Potosí’s most famous painting, the 18th century La Virgen del Cerro, by an unknown artist, in which the Virgin Mary is the mountain of Cerro Rico.

Since Pachamama is a ‘good mother’, people toast to her honour almost every day by spilling a small amount of the fermented corn drink chicha to the earth, before drinking the rest. The toast is called ch’alla, from the word for offering, in the native language of Quechua.

Celestina, Macaria and Maria are palliris, a name given to female rock-breakers, which comes from the Aymara language, meaning ‘to select’. For around four dollars a day, the women sort through discarded mine tailings on the surface of the mountain, breaking the rocks with a small hammer to separate tin, silver and zinc. Their decades of experience allow them to determine each mineral by sight and by weighing the rocks with their hands.

Potosí’s ‘mountain of silver’ funded Europe’s development for centuries, yet it remains one of the poorest regions in Latin America

Celestina is 81 years old, and has been a palliri for around 40 years. Maria, Celestina’s 62-year-old daughter, has been working with her mother for 18 years. Though Maria enjoys working with her mother, she laments that Potosí has given Bolivia, and indeed the world, so much, but never gets anything back. Maria has a point. Potosí’s ‘mountain of silver’ funded Europe’s development for centuries, yet it remains one of the poorest regions in Latin America.

Working in the mines

Their hands look strong and wise, coated in the fine, light blue-grey dust of the minerals they sort. Celestina has a heavily lined face shadowed by her wide-brimmed black hat and wears dangly metal earrings. They all wear hats and cover their skin with thick, long skirts and llama wool cardigans. Celestina’s eyes almost look permanently closed from decades of squinting at the harsh high-altitude sun reflecting off the light coloured rock.

As we start talking, the face of 68-year-old Macaria lights up. She is immensely proud of her community and begins telling me her story before I even ask a question. She is a palliri because neither her husband, who was left brain-damaged after a mining accident, nor her daughter, who doesn’t have any legs, can work.

Macaria began working in the mines before the age of 15, when her father died. At first, the mine boss said she was too young, but she had a Spanish godfather who pulled some strings and soon she was working alongside her brothers. She worked until she was 23 in lead and silver mines, later working outside separating minerals with water and gravity.

When the US flooded the market in 1985, the price of tin crashed, making life even tougher on the mountain. Female workers got together and organized a support and response group called Centre of Palliris. They started street cleaning and tree planting groups to deal with unemployment. Macaria was president of the organization for several years and tells me she’s a very political person and is proud that, with little opportunity, she still enjoys life and is informed. Today, the group is called the Association of Female Workers of Cerro Rico, Potosí.

The important things in life

We sit, green bags on our laps, de-veining then chewing the coca leaves they contain to suppress the effects of altitude, fatigue and hunger as we look over the formerly government-owned miners’ houses that are now mostly empty. The women all reflect that conditions were much better before the crash and subsequent re-privatisation of mining in Bolivia. I ask Macaria what the three most important things in life are. She explains that work is the most important, because without it you cannot have health or look after your family.

Today Cerro Rico is hollow, but still standing at 4,860 metres above sea level. She has not once slept during the past 460 years, since the Spanish learnt of her riches. She still gives. She still takes away. She is tired, but not exhausted. Each day approximately 3,000 tonnes of mineral are brought out of Cerro Rico by around 15,000 miners, working in over 500 separate mines.

Macaria explains that work is the most important, because without it you cannot have health or look after your family

Potosí is one of Bolivia’s most indigenous regions. Over a third of its population only speak native languages. Almost every mining family is indigenous with Quechua, or sometimes Aymara, as their first language.

In 1581, Phillip II of Spain told an audience that a third of Latin America’s Indians had already been wiped out, and, referring to Potosí specifically, that mothers killed their own children to save them from the horrors of the mines. It is estimated there were 70 million Indians in Latin America when Columbus sailed towards its shores thinking he had found a back door to Asia. A century and a half later, there were just 3.5 million. Modesta only speaks Quechua and lives in a tiny adobe (mud brick) building on the side of the mountain. Two thirds of the building houses mining equipment and the other third is home to Modesta, her husband, and five of their seven children. She earns US$45 a month for protecting a mine entrance and mining equipment from thieves, all day, every day. She has six scrawny dogs to help.

What hope?

Modesta is spinning llama wool to make clothing and bedding for her family while she tells me of her 14 years living amongst the mines. Originally Modesta’s family were peasant farmers in the region of Santa Cruz, but if the rains were unkind to their crops they had no food. They moved to Potosí and her husband took a job in the mines. He is now a second-class miner earning between $30 and $70 a week, depending on production and the quality of minerals extracted. Modesta tells me that almost half his last pay went on his weekly alcohol binge. Drinking is a huge problem within the mining community. Alcohol not only exacerbates poverty, it brings violence and unplanned children into the home.

Modesta doesn’t want her children to work in the mines because of the danger, poor pay and short life, but she confesses, ‘I have no hope for our situation’.

Photo: Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: Macaria, widow of the Mines, Potosí, Bolivia 2004

Her eldest child has a job in a brick factory in Argentina and her 14-year-old son, Saturino, wants to follow his older brother after one more year of school. Modesta believes the only opportunity for her 12-year-old daughter Sylvia is to become a maid for a wealthy family, and if she is lucky, in a richer region of Bolivia.

Elias is seven and the only child with a local interest. Modesta helps him to collect coloured rocks and minerals, which he sells to tourists. Sadly, many of the children of Cerro Rico do likewise, which causes rivalry between the child sellers, leading to bullying, violence and an absence of friendships. Fortunately, Modesta’s children have some friends nearby, who aren’t competitors for tourists’ short change.

Despite centuries of tragedy on this mountain, there is a joy, dignity and beauty within her people. Though she provides the livelihood for thousands of people, and there is a subtle fear about the day Cerro Rico is finally exhausted, she is sacred to the people of Potosí

Modesta shines with a huge, almost toothless smile as she talks about Jose, her youngest, who is only four. Too young for school, he spends the days with his mother and clings to her as we talk. Given the average life span of miners in Potosí is around 38 years, the odds are that his father will be dead before Jose is 10. He and his brothers will likely be forced to follow their father’s fading footsteps, down the hill, into the mine, and into an early grave.

Miners generally don’t have access to running water, let alone hot showers, and are permanently coated in fine dust, meaning intimacy often results in sickness, especially in women. The wives face a future that is likely to bring the early loss of their husband and the primary family income, creating the need for children to begin working at disturbingly young ages. These mothers and wives have to deal with anxiety and fear for their children and husbands below in the mines every single day.

Keeper of a million stories

The women of Cerro Rico are widows or widows in waiting and are eventually left with the responsibility of trying to ensure their husbands can at least rest in peace. The miners are proud men who can truly say they have sacrificed their life for their family. But for the poorest miners of Potosí, even death is a struggle. If a miner is not in a co-operative, his family has to pay for a burial plot on a five yearly basis. If they cannot afford the payments, the remains are discarded and the plot used for someone else. Despite centuries of tragedy on this mountain, there is a joy, dignity and beauty within her people. Though she provides the livelihood for thousands of people, and there is a subtle fear about the day Cerro Rico is finally exhausted, she is sacred to the people of Potosí. Huge protests towards the end of 2010, in which Potosinos went on strike and blockaded the entire region for 20 days, ensured an agreement with the national government to preserve the form of Cerro Rico, even if it means leaving some of her wealth where it is.

A few days later, looking up from the city to the conical red mountain, I say to Jacqueline, a local woman, ‘that mountain must be the keeper of millions of stories.’ ‘She never stops speaking,’ Jacqueline replies.

James Dryburgh is a Scottish-born Tasmanian writer passionate about truth and helping the world’s muffled voices to be heard. He has lived in Scotland, Spain and Latin America and is Associate Editor of tasmaniantimes.com.